Dos Reales Mexican Restaurant

Dos Reales
1407 N. Prospect, Champaign
217-351-6879

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dos_reales_signDos Reales, often just referred to as “Dos,” is a Mexican restaurant on North Prospect in Champaign, and has been around our area for quite a long time. While other similar Mexican restaurants have come and gone (Mas Amigos, for example), Dos has weathered the test of time.

They serve standard Mexican-American food, and their six-page (six!) menu offers up just about every combination under the sun: tacos, tortas, burritos, chimichangas, fajitas, quesadillas, steak dishes, chicken dishes seafood dishes, etc.  It’s a bit excessive, and could probably be whittled down to a page or two and folks would be just as happy with their available choices. There’s also a reason I eat out at restaurants and don’t run them.

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Like other Mexican restaurants they start you off with freshly made chips and salsa. Well, one of the bowls has salsa in it, but I think the other one is just chopped tomatoes as it is plain red and I see no other ingredients of any kind. We usually mix them together and add some green El Yucateco to it to spice it up.

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Betsy and I have tried many of their various offerings over the years, and have always come away happy and with a full stomach. I enjoy their burritos and quesadillas, and of course one can’t go wrong with lunch fajitas, which while I don’t have scientific numbers to back this up, appears by casual glance to be one of their more popular dishes. Chicken or steak slices are grilled with tomatoes, peppers, and onions, and served with small tortillas on the side, and the diner then builds their own fajitas. Fun and delicious, I guess.

While the menu seems similar to many of the other restaurants of the same genre we’ve visited over the years, we really have no complaints. The food is good, comes out of the kitchen quickly, and is always very hot. I wish their salsa was spicier, and that they had homemade hot sauces instead of just stuff from the grocery store, but I also realize that most of the world doesn’t necessarily like everything to be ridiculously spicy like I do. All-in-all I have really nothing but good things to say about Dos Reales, and I don’t think most local lunch diners will be disappointed with their fare.

Food: 5stars
Atmosphere: 5stars
Service: 5stars

La Bamba Mexican Restaurant

La Bamba
1905 Glenn Park Drive, Champaign
217-355-6600
http://labambaburritos.com/

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la_bambaAhh, La Bamba. Hands down my favorite burritos anywhere in the world. Well, I haven’t been to too many places in “the world,” but this place is still my favorite.

La Bamba was opened in Campustown, in the main level of Skylight apartments on 5th and Green Street in the late 1980s. The space was small, and was mostly carry-out, and after a few years they expanded their space and added a bunch more seating. They were a staple of light-night “after the bars close” food, and for good reason; there’s not much better than a great big burrito to fill your stomach after a night of drinking.

During this time they expanded to other college campuses in the Midwest, including Wisconsin, Kentucky, Indiana, and a few other state schools in Illinois. Later they moved their campus location to a building on Sixth Street a block north of Green, and also opened a new location off Mattis Avenue in west Champaign.

They closed their location on campus several years back, and now their only location in town is the place on Glenn Park Drive.

So the food… They are mostly known for their “burritos as big as your head,” which come in mini, regular, and super sizes. In addition to burritos they have loaded nachos, tortas, and soft tacos. In addition to steak and chicken, they also offer chorizo, barbecued pork, and ground beef as options.

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My favorite is a super burrito with steak and chorizo, without beans. They have several flavors of salsa, and I like to mix the “regular” salsa (their most popular by far) with the much spicier chipotle-style salsa. Betsy loves their Mexican rice, which can be ordered as a side item, or added to a burrito.

They are open for lunch and still stay open until “after the bars close.” If you’re a fan of good burritos, and haven’t tried La Bamba, you’re missing out. Tell Antonio I said hello.

Food: 5stars
Atmosphere: 5stars
Service: 5stars

Empire Chinese

Empire Chinese
410 E. Green St., Champaign
217-328-0832
http://cu-empire.com/

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empire_outsideEmpire Chinese is, you guessed it, a Chinese restaurant located in Campustown in the Skylight apartment building on the corner of 5th and Green Street. They have a wide offering of dishes, and will make them spicier if you would like (I do). It’s an order-at-the-counter joint, and depending on how busy they are they will bring your food when it is ready (or holler your order for you to come pick up).

The cleanliness of the place used to be a bit sketchy, but they apparently did some remodeling in the past year and the inside of the restaurant is much cleaner than it used to be. One of the things they removed during the remodel was their Pepsi fountain station. We both had water, which was fine with us.

I ordered the Szechuan chicken, which comes with vegetables and rice. The Szechuan chicken and vegetables were nice and spicy, and cooked perfectly. I also ordered an egg roll and a bowl of egg drop soup. Their egg drop soup is, in a word, phenomenal. I’ve tried to make egg drop soup at home many times and can’t ever get it to be even as good as the stuff at the buffet out by Lowe’s. The soup at Empire is by far and away better.

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Betsy ordered chicken chow mein fun. She loved it. There were lots of vegetables and napa, and the sauce was nice and light and garlicky. She also had hot and sour soup, and said that of all the Chinese places we’ve eaten at, it is, in her opinion, the best hot and sour soup in Champaign-Urbana. The bowls of soup were full bowls, not just cups, so we had a lot of food for not a lot of money.

empire_betsy

I’m glad to see that this place has cleaned up a bit. There’s not much to it, ambiance-wise, but the food is wonderful and quite affordable. We’ll definitely be back.

Food: 5stars
Atmosphere: 3stars
Service: 5stars

Urbana Garden

Urbana Garden
810 W. Killarney, Urbana
217-328-1514
http://urbanagardenrestaurant.com/
(or http://urbanagarden.com/ ?)

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urbana_gardenUrbana Garden has been located just off North Lincoln Avenue in Urbana, just south of I-74, for a couple of decades. They serve a wide array of items for breakfast, along with sandwiches, soups, and salads for lunch, and a wide array of offerings for dinner. Of course, we’re here to talk about lunch, so that’s what we’ll do.

Betsy ordered their lunchtime salad bar along with a bowl of potato soup. She said the soup had a funny consistency and an odd flavor. Not odd in the sense that it was bad or out of date, but there was some ingredient in it that she couldn’t place a finger on, that she wasn’t expecting to taste. The salad bar was a typical salad bar, however it was apparent that they used “real,” washed iceberg lettuce that was freshly cut up and not salad out of a bag.

I ordered a patty melt and French fries. The patty melt was pretty good, although my complaint with restaurant patty melts (not unique to this place) is getting a round burger put on a much larger, longer piece of rye bread. If I were to open a restaurant (no thanks!) and serve a patty melt, I’d probably do what I do at home—make the hamburger patty longer so that it better fits on the rye bread and there isn’t a pile of crust left over. The fries were big, thick steak fries, which I don’t mind from time to time.

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Overall we didn’t have much of a complaint with the food. The service was great, and our food was hot. As it is a family restaurant, the din is a bit louder than I’m used to during lunch, and let’s just leave it at that.

Food: 4stars
Atmosphere: 3stars
Service: 5stars

Zorba’s

Zorba’s
627 E. Green St., Champaign
217-344-0710
zorbascu.com

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zorbas_outsideZorba’s is a Greek restaurant in the heart of Campustown near the University of Illinois. It’s been around since the early 1970s and has been owned locally by Matt Mortenson since 1997.

Their menu consists of traditional lamb gryos as well as chicken gyros, several sandwich options, Greek salad, and some vegetarian options including falafel, a black bean burger, and several other items. Sides include French fries, onion rings, and chili. They have fountain drinks and fresh-brewed tea, and if you’re in the mood for dessert they have baklava as well.

As many folks in Champaign-Urbana are aware, Zorba’s had a devastating fire a few years ago. They have rebuilt and are back and better than ever. The order counter and kitchen used to be located at the front of the store, which often caused some congestion around the entrance, but that has been alleviated as it is now located in the back of the building while there is seating up front.

My favorite day of the week to go to Zorba’s is “Groovy Tuesday” because they have $1.00 off gyros and half-priced French fries. I opt for the “giant classic” which is 8 ounces of gyro meat on a warmed pita with tomatoes, onions, and cucumber sauce. I’m not necessarily a fan of crinkle-cut fries (I don’t even like saying “crinkle-cut”…) but they are an adequate side dish, especially when half-price.

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Betsy ordered a falafel sandwich on our last visit, and appreciated that they didn’t put tahini sauce on it, because tahini can sometimes be overwhelmingly bitter.

Overall I really enjoy gyros at Zorba’s and think they’re the best in town. My wife disagrees and likes Niro’s better, but we’ll get to them in a future review. Zorba’s is very clean, but while the new arrangement has alleviated some of the congestion, when they’re busy it is still difficult to get in and out of the restaurant.

Food: 5stars
Atmosphere: 5stars
Service: 5stars

Murphy’s Pub

Murphy’s Pub
604 E. Green Street, Champaign
217-344-4372

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murphys_pub_outsideMurphy’s Pub has been on the campus of the University of Illinois since 1969. They’re well known for their Murphy’s burgers and delicious French fries. They also have soups and salads and several other sandwich offerings.

When I was a student at the University of Illinois back in the late 1980s, Murphy’s was about a quarter the size that it is today. The grill/kitchen was right inside the front door, and the bar itself was further back. Back then the police and cities were much less stringent about 19- and 20-year olds drinking, and Murphy’s was the only (right?) “upper classman” bar because they only allowed kids 21 and over to enter in the evenings. (Probably Willy’s, or Illini Inn, was that way as well, but that’s not really a “campus bar…”).

Back in the day, Murphy’s was well known for their burgers and fries, including their “mega” burgers which they have on special several days a week, including the bacon “mega” on Wednesday and the mushroom “mega” on Saturday. Their full menu can be found on eatcu.com.

I think my wife has only been to Murphy’s once or twice over the years, and with the students gone for Spring break, we decided it might be a great time to visit them.  I, of course, ordered the bacon “mega” cheeseburger with fries, and the redhead ordered a blackened tuna salad with a bowl of corned beef chowder.

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I have to admit, we were both a bit disappointed. Betsy said the chowder was “interesting” but wasn’t a fan of the salad, which she said was basically bagged salad mix with on over-cooked piece of tuna and a vinaigrette dressing that she said tasted too sweet. As far as my burger, it definitely wasn’t the experience from back in the day. The burger patty seemed more like it had been frozen instead of freshly made and my bun seemed stale. The fries were fantastic, of course,

Service was relatively quick, and the environment is great—it’s definitely a college bar, but it’s clean and easy to get into and around.

Food: 3stars
Atmosphere: 5stars
Service: 5stars

Fiesta Cafe

Fiesta Cafe
216 S. First Street, Champaign
217-352-5902
fiestacafe.com

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fiesta_cafe_signFiesta Café is a delightful Mexican restaurant located on First Street a couple of blocks south of University Avenue in Champaign. It’s been a fixture since the late 1980s and we absolutely love the food, drinks, and atmosphere of the place.

They start you off with a basket of fresh chips and two kinds of salsa. They serve both alcoholic drinks and fountain soft drinks as well as many other options in the large cooler inside the front door.

My favorite dish to get at Fiesta is called “El Popo Lunch.” El Popo refers to Popocatépetl, an active volcano in Mexico. Ever seen the painting with the half-naked Aztec looking dude carrying the passed out scantily clad woman? There are many variants of that image and it depicts the legend of Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl. Here’s a Wikipedia page on the subject.

Anyway, El Popo lunch involves a combination of a taco or tamale paired with a burrito or chimichanga.  I usually go for a burrito and a soft flour taco. They will make your taco either the traditional way with cilantro and onions, or the American way with lettuce, tomato, and cheese. I’ve tried both chorizo and shredded chicken in my taco and enjoy both very much. For my burrito, I go with one of their original creations Alex pork, which is grilled ground pork with a delicious mix of spices. They wrap it all up in a flour tortilla and smother it with melted cheese.

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One of their other specialties is Alex tacos, which are two corn tortillas with aforementioned Alex pork, grilled onions, cilantro, cebollitas (which are basically small grilled whole onions), and their spicy green sauce, which is absolutely delicious.

Speaking of the spicy green sauce, the wonderful staff brings three kinds of homemade salsas to your table in plastic squeeze bottles. In addition to the spicy green sauce, they have what to me is a pretty standard taco sauce, as well as a very hot and spicy brown salsa that I pretty smother everything with.

Fiesta was recently remodeled and they did a fantastic job. The ambiance is colorful and clean, and the décor is pretty cool too. The service staff are very attentive, the food comes out quickly and is always very hot, and all of the above makes this one of our favorite places to eat in Champaign-Urbana, and a pretty appropriate place to write about for our first post.

Food: 5stars
Atmosphere: 5stars
Service: 5stars